Events have a way of overtaking us these days. We go from tweet to tweet and
post to post. The news cycle is rife with who is up and who is down. Each of us often feels compelled to get in a corner, hunker down, and defend our side. The other alternative of course is to just ignore it all and tune out because it is all too much to handle. The challenge at hand is whether or not these are the only two choices available. Do we need to surrender to the current zeitgeist that demands that either we are out front and center on every idea, thought, and new piece of information. Or do we ignore the larger world and check out? In either choosing to retreat or feeling compelled to see the world as a personal platform, one explicitly rejects the notion that being linked to institutions which have lofty and aspirational ideas at their core, is a viable option.
Yuval Levin, in his brilliant new book A Time to Build, explores the nature and role of organizations in society and how their decline has been detrimental to the health of our society. He points to this overwhelming need for everyone to be out front and in the spotlight and instead of organizations serving the collective good, their role becomes a platform for self-promotion. Because people are so bent on self-promotion, a natural erosion of loyalty to and connection with trusted institutions follows. For whole swaths of this country, people’s identity no longer includes prideful membership in a fellowship, a community organization, or civic associations; they “belong to a Facebook group” that more often than not serves as a way to either air individual gripes or promote one’s own opinions. Synagogues are victims of this societal trend towards disaffiliation in a way that might threaten their very existence in some denominations.
By every measure we are less engaged with one another in face to face interaction, in spite of constantly and consistently being able to engage with one another virtually. We strive to share with a world we have never met every intimate or mundane detail of our lives, but we struggle to keep our synagogues afloat because of lack of interest in people actively participating in a group or an institution. Our institutions wither while our likes grow.
But all is not lost. There are examples of thriving and growing communities within the Jewish world. There are synagogues whose membership does remain stable or even growing. There are day schools that are at capacity or even with enrollment waiting lists and we should look to them for lessons. But often their secret sauce is a combination of geography, unusually skilled leadership, and a bit of good fortune.
However, the place where we might learn how best to build a community that is warm, welcoming, and successful might be someplace few adults ever get to see—the Jewish summer camping world. Ironically, maybe the leadership of the adult Jewish world needs to take a step back and find for themselves a teacher in their own children.
The breadth and depth of successful Jewish camps across and often between denominations is breathtaking. Each summer, they bring together public and day school children from a myriad of backgrounds and create experiences that are transformative for their campers in ways that our adult institutions might do well to learn from.
Their success is even more striking because many of these camps create communities that are almost antithetical to the worlds these children live in the other ten months of the year. During these two months, they are often devoid of any connection to the internet and many of them have regular, routine prayer and Jewish practice; they observe kashrut, have strong communal norms that are adhered to by all campers, and foster a sense of belonging in a way that is no longer considered possible in the mainstream society. Each of these things requires the participants to subsume their personal “brand” just a little bit and join a collective institution in a way which gives them meaning and fosters a sense of community that they clearly crave.
Jack Wertheimer, in his most recent book The New American Judaism, singled out summer Jewish camps as integral, formative, and transformative experiences and institutions. Maybe it is time that we begin to look to our young people and the adults that lead them at camp for some lessons on how to build a successful and thriving Jewish community.
Just stop any child who has gone to a Jewish summer camp and ask them about their experience. The first thing you will notice is that they relish being a part of something bigger than themselves. They are relieved that during the summer they no longer have to worry about curating their own “brand”. They live together in a way that lifts their fellow human in respectful and dignified ways just because they can. And they do all of this joyfully and willingly in a community that requires them to live by a common set of values and norms, often more restrictive and demanding than that which they live with at home. If you look carefully and critically at a Jewish summer camp’s last night of tearful infused singing or spend time with a group of summer camp alumni, you might be tempted to think that the larger Jewish world has something to learn from this experience.
It is probably important to continue to engage in all the social science research and social venture projects underway in the Jewish community. But maybe we should just stop and look at what will happen in a little more than five months from now in camps all across this country for some inspiration and maybe even a little advice because our kids seem to be onto something important.